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September 28, 2003: The Day Althea Gibson, The First African – American Player Passed Away

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Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson

Every day, Tennis Majors transports you back in time to commemorate a historic occasion in tennis history. Today, we return to 2003 to remember Althea Gibson, the first African-American tennis player, who died on this day in 2003 at the age of 76.

Tennis star Althea Gibson died on this day, September 28, 2003, at the age of 76, from complications related to lung and bladder illnesses. Her five Grand Slam singles championships symbolized more than simply tennis success: they were the result of a protracted battle against racism and discrimination, which Gibson had to overcome before she was allowed to compete in major tennis events. Her achievement was a significant step forward for both tennis desegregation and the civil rights movement. 

Althea Gibson was born in 1927 on a cotton plantation in North Carolina, but she grew up in New York, where her family relocated in 1930 due to the Great Depression. She made her racket debut in the streets of Harlem, playing paddle tennis, a modified version of tennis played on a smaller court without the doubles alley.

Although the USLTA did not formally sanction racial segregation in tennis events, several of its tournaments were hosted in all-white country clubs. Althea Gibson finally entered this realm in 1949, when she became the first black woman to compete in the USTA’s National Indoor Championships, reaching the quarterfinals.

Gibson saw the Williams sisters rise to the top of the world, meeting each other in four consecutive Grand Slam finals, before her death on September 28, 2003. Serena praised Gibson’s legacy, telling, “For me, she was the most important tennis pioneer.” “She was black, she resembled me, and she opened so many doors.”

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